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A Times Editorial

Climate bill vital for Florida

Today in Washington, the House has a historic opportunity to put the nation on a new course toward sustainable living and energy independence. The climate bill scheduled for a floor vote is the most comprehensive attempt ever by Congress to curb global warming greenhouse gases and shift the nation's energy supply away from dirty coal and foreign oil to cleaner, renewable sources. Florida has a greater stake than perhaps any other state. Rising temperatures and sea levels pose devastating consequences to our coastline, agriculture and tourism. Florida's congressional delegation should help the House send the strongest possible legislation to the Senate.

It was inevitable that a 1,200-page bill would have something for everybody: energy suppliers, environmentalists, farmers, the states, venture capitalists, the poor — even industrial polluters whose emissions of carbon the legislation seeks to end. While it is imperfect, the bill still forms the bedrock of a sound and multifaceted energy strategy. The government would require a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions — mostly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — by 2020, and an 83 percent reduction by 2050. To meet the caps, it would hand out emission allowances or credits that polluters could buy and sell on an open market. The "cap-and-trade" system would allow polluters who comply with the caps to sell their unneeded allowances. The trading would spur investment in clean-energy technologies as industries looked to lower their emissions.

The bill requires utilities to meet 20 percent of their demand for electricity with renewable sources by 2020. Twenty-eight states have already set quotas or targets for renewable energy. Having a national standard will bring predictability to states that have taken the lead while setting a floor for states like Florida whose legislatures have balked at establishing renewable goals.

The bill is not ideal. It would give away 85 percent of the emission allowances at the program's start in 2012, mainly to the utilities and other heavy polluters. That allocation would shift over time, and by 2030 the majority of allowances would be auctioned off. The legislation also includes weasel language that allows utilities to whittle down how much electricity they actually have to produce from renewable sources. Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California, in an effort to win support from rural and conservative Democrats, also agreed to make it easier for farmers to plant trees and other agricultural projects they could sell in a potentially lucrative "offset" market.

Still, the legislation is a strong starting point. While most of the allowances would be given away in the early years, utilities would have to pass the value of these allowances down to their customers. The targets for renewable energy, while not particularly ambitious, should still be enough to spur private-sector investment in solar, wind and other alternative industries. Credits for "energy efficiency" also are helpful. Reducing wasteful practices by businesses and homeowners is cost-free, requiring only a change in habit. The bill would steer an estimated $90 billion to the states through 2025 for clean-energy programs. Billions more would be spent to protect wildlife and coastal ecosystems and to stave off deforestation. Just as important, the bill could create millions of new, high-tech jobs. It also would put science back in its rightful place as the driver of national energy policy.

Congressional Republicans have trashed the legislation as a crushing burden on industry and American consumers. But an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office put the cost of a cap-and-trade program at about $15 per month for households by 2020. The lowest-income households in America would actually save $40 a year through rebates and energy credits. Those figures back up similar findings by the Environmental Protection Agency. And that does not account for any benefit that would accrue from tempering the acceleration of climate change.

Florida's delegation should be out front in support. Left unchecked, global warming poses serious consequences to the state's infrastructure and economy. A report this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that a rise in sea levels threatens Florida's coastal counties and could cause tens of billions of dollars in damage to homes, key infrastructure and the tourism industry. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, deserves credit for her strong advocacy. Now it is time for Republican Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville and Vern Buchanan of Sarasota to step to the plate.

Climate bill vital for Florida 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 7:39pm]
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